It’s a Small World

Curio & Co. looks at classic Disney attraction from the 1964 World's fair. Curio and Co.

Stuck in your head since 1964.

The 1964 World’s Fair in New York was pretty groundbreaking, if not partially because it was also a little rule-breaking. Technically, it wasn’t a World’s Fair, or not an officially-sanctioned one, anyway. It was stripped of its status by the committee that oversees these things, the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in France. The BIE denounced the fair when organizers planned to extend the fair past the six months maximum allowed by official World Fair Regulations, and to charge exhibitors a rental fee for pavilions. What’s more, the official rules specify that a country can host only one fair every ten years, and the Seattle World’s Fair had already been held in 1962. Organizers went ahead anyway, without official recognition, and the fair ran for two years. They lost a lot of the national delegates because of the committee’s decision, and instead turned to corporations to provide pavilions and attractions.

One of those corporations was led by a fellow by the name of Walt Disney, who liked the idea of a permanent World’s Fair with country pavilions and a focus on technology and some animatronic attractions and maybe a ride or two. His permanent World’s Fair became EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Florida.

But one of his great contributions to the 1964 World’s Fair was It’s a Small World (which was later relocated to Disneyland). And love it or hate it, it sure is memorable. As one friend of mine puts it – it’s a kindergarten teacher’s project gone way out of control.

It’s a Small World was created by Disney for the UNICEF pavilion sponsored by Pepsi. Designed and built in just 11 months, the ride features over 400 audio-animatronic dolls dressed as children of the world, dancing and singing about international unity. Mary Blair, an artist who served as art director on Disney’s Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, designed the attraction’s whimsical styling. The ride is particularly famous for its theme song (perhaps you’re familiar with it?), written by the Sherman Brothers, which is arguably one of the most performed – and most translated – songs in the whole small world.

The ride was a big hit at the fair, and ten million tickets for the attraction were sold over the two years the fair was open (costing just 60¢ for kids and 95¢ for adults). In fact, the ride could handle so many visitors, that it significantly changed future Disney attractions. Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean was under construction as a walk-through attraction, but that design was scrapped for the boat set up that had been so successful at the fair.

As a kid, I was once stuck inside the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland, to my great fortune (or misfortune, depending on whether you’re a kid or an adult). Our little boat came to a halt in the Latin America room, and we stayed there for a good twenty minutes (my mother claims it was hours). The boats were forever bumping into each other as each new boat got trapped in the ride, and between that and the song continuing in its never-ending loop, it’s not surprising that my mother ended up with a splitting migraine and has never been on the ride since. But I loved the experience: more time spent in a favorite ride gave me a chance to absorb all of the details of the dolls and pick up a little Spanish vocabulary.

Although to be fair, the world seems even smaller when you can’t leave the boat.